A journey of bold listening

The director of the Peace & Justice Office of MCC Canada reflects on advocacy as part of her Anabaptist faith.

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In 2010, Mampuján community leader Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernández displays a partially completed 10-year historic quilt project in Colombia celebrating the Mampuján community's past before they were disp

Top photo: In 2010, Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernández, a community leader in Mampuján, Colombia, displays a partially completed story quilt celebrating the community’s past and recreating a layout of the community’s buildings before they were displaced by a paramilitary group in 2000. MCC photo/Silas Crews.

A wise mentor once told me that advocacy means listening boldly. To advocate means building relationships and paying attention to stories and what they tell us about the connections and responsibilities we share with one another. And, over the years, I’ve found advocacy to be a life-giving spiritual discipline. It’s rooted in the biblical stories of people like Esther. It’s based on choosing to believe in the possibility of change, on listening out of a place of connection and on working together.

I spent many of my growing up years in the beautiful Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory in Dawson City, Yukon. It’s a place of complexity and history, of small towns and close relationships, of settler and Indigenous cultures, of gold mining and breathtaking landscapes. It’s a place where I first started thinking about the histories that we share as I learned more about my own Russian Mennonite family’s journey and how to be a good guest on northern land.After university, where I had studied grassroots nonviolent movements, joining MCC’s two-year Seed program for young adults felt like a natural step. The program’s focus on living and walking alongside churches engaging in peacebuilding meant that I had the opportunity to live and work in Mampuján, Colombia, from 2011-2013. Members of this Afro-Colombian community are among the nearly 7 million people who have been displaced inside Colombia by decades of armed conflict. Although very different from the Yukon, it is also a place of complexity, of conflict, of close relationships, of colonization, of harm and of healing.

Supported by MCC partner Sembrandopaz, whose Spanish name means planting peace, the women of the community engaged in trauma healing through quilting their stories. As they sewed, they shared what had happened to them over 500 years of history. They stitched their ancestors being brought as slaves to Colombia, their displacement by armed groups and their dreams of a future free of violence.

They, along with other community leaders, also started telling another story — of community resilience and hope, of forgiveness and breaking cycles of violence, of working for reparations and dignity through advocacy.

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In 2010,  Former MCC worker, Teresa Geiser, drew on her experiences in El Salvador to teach women in Mampuján, Colombia, to make story quilts to document the details of their displacement as a trauma
The word secuestro means kidnapping in Spanish. This story quilt, shown in 2010, recounts how the community of Mampuján was displaced by armed groups in 2000 and the kidnapping of various community members. MCC photo/Silas Crews

As I attended meetings and advocacy events alongside community leaders like Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernández, I saw how hope, prophetically linked to action, grew out of their belief in a God of restoration and love who calls people to engage together in nonviolence. Near the end of my time in Mampuján, I had the great joy of watching some community members receive their first reparations payments from the government. I was inspired by the change that could take place when people gathered to share their stories and then act together.

For churches across Colombia, including in Mampuján, this work of building peace and healing was often messy and complicated. Not everyone agreed with each other. The very real risk of retaliation from armed groups was always present. However, the goal of shalom — of peace with justice, grounded in theology — brought people together in polarized contexts in a way that political ideologies could not.

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In 2011, Anna Vogt accompanied some 600 people from Mampuján, Colombia, on a 45-mile walk to the city of Cartagena to call attention to their situation as displaced people. “Instead of only being vict
In 2011, Anna Vogt accompanied some 600 people from Mampuján, Colombia, on a 45-mile walk to the city of Cartagena to call attention to their situation as displaced people. “Instead of only being victims, they are learning to see themselves as people with agency and the capability to stand up for a better future,” Vogt wrote at the time.  MCC photo/Anna Vogt

After my time in the Seed program, I moved to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, where I continued to serve with MCC. During my time there, the Colombian government and the largest armed group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), engaged in peace dialogues. During a time of debate nationwide, many Colombian churches and MCC partners brought that same message of peace for everyone to their congregations. Some, like MCC partner Justapaz, whose name combines the Spanish words for justice and peace, engaged in direct advocacy to the negotiating parties.

The story of Esther was often used as a reference point. In times such as these, what is the role of the church? Just as Esther was uniquely positioned to speak to the king, how was the church called to respond to contexts of violence and uncertainty?

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MCC service worker Anna Vogt carries a sign that reads, “The moment has come to reconcile ourselves. Yes to peace, to forgiveness, to life.” She particpated in a peace march in Bogota. Colombians gat
Anna Vogt carries a sign that reads, "The moment has come to reconcile ourselves. Yes to peace, to forgiveness, to life," during a peace march in Bogotá Colombia, in 2016. MCC photo/Amy Eanes

This public commitment to peace is not just for times of celebration, or when efforts seem likely to bear fruit. In 2016, when the government and the FARC were ready to sign a peace agreement, the last step was the referendum for Colombians to vote on the agreement. Instead of the resounding yes vote we expected, many of those who had not experienced conflict, including many in churches in urban areas, voted no. The peace agreement was in jeopardy. The peace churches’ public witness was essential.

After the vote, faith leaders, including Anabaptists, gathered in the central plaza of Bogotá, publicly recommitting to the work of peace. We celebrated communion, breaking bread together. It was a moment of confession and renewal, based on the relationships we shared with those directly impacted by violence. Years of listening were transformed into a bold public witness. 

The opportunity to work with the global church, and to witness these powerful examples of love in action through advocacy, has shaped my own understanding of faith and of my faith calling. This work isn’t easy. It can be deeply painful to be confronted with situations of violence and injustice and asked to examine my own responsibility. Yet we are not alone.

I am reminded that I am sewn into the community story, and that the community and my time in Latin America also are stitched deeply into my own story.

As I stood with my colleagues from Justapaz, among many others, in the square in Bogotá, it was another chance to experience the power of being willing to sit with discomfort and grief and of the public witness of sharing bread with one another.  In these spaces of walking together and sharing joys and sorrows, I found a sense of hope.

Within many Christian traditions, there is a long history of paying attention to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. When I talk with community leaders like Juana Alicia or am in planning meetings, I often sense that I am hearing that still, small voice.

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A group of people sitting around a table
Each year, MCC brings together partners in MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean program to share their expertise with one another. In 2018, Anna Vogt (in red) listens as MCC staff and partners gather in Cali, Colombia, to learn from each other and share about their work and context. Photo provided by Anna Vogt

Here in Ottawa, a world away from the Yukon and from Colombia, I have a tapestry from Mampuján hanging in my office. When I look at it, I am reminded that I am sewn into the community story, and that the community and my time in Latin America also are stitched deeply into my own story.

I continue to reflect on the lessons of Esther. When are we asked to be Esther and when are we called to examine if we are the ones who are being invited to listen and respond to the voices of the Esthers in our own contexts? What does bold listening look like here?

In our advocacy work, in Canada and the U.S., we build bridges between government decision makers and MCC partners. We strive to encourage government policies that recognize the connections that we share with one another, that uphold dignity and peace and that undo harm.

Together, we continue to imagine different futures of repair and restoration. As we do this work, my own faith continues to be shaped and my understandings of justice, mercy and love are renewed and re-imagined. Daily, I am privileged to witness and learn from the power of faith communities around the world and in Canada, as we gather to share stories, listen deeply and take the next step boldly, based on the relationships we share with one another.

Anna Vogt, director of MCC Canada’s Peace & Justice Office in Ottawa, served with MCC and was based in Colombia from 2011 to 2018.